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The Road To McCain Runs Through Palin

This number, from the new FOX News/Opinion Dynamics poll, is not a good one for Democrats:

28. Regardless of how you might vote, which
presidential ticket do you think will bring
the right change to Washington?

Dem Ticket Rep Ticket
Total 46 39
Democrats 84 5
Republicans 7 82
Independents 36 38

It’s the number at the bottom that ought to be a concern. Obama presently has no edge on “change” among independents. In fact, the Republicans lead in that category by two points.

You think that’s because of John McCain? You think that McCain would be polling evenly among independents on “needed change” if he had selected Mitt Romney as his running mate? No, it’s because of Sarah Palin.

But here’s the tricky thing: it’s not directly because of Palin. In this survey, when questions were asked about Palin herself, she performed well, but not all that well. As might be expected, she leads Joe Biden on the have-a-beer-with attributes and trails him on the ready-on-day-one attributes. Overall, Palin scores at a +9 among independents when they were asked whether they were more or less likely to support the Republican ticket because of her presence. That isn’t a bad number, but Joe Biden, at a +7, is right there with her.

But Palin is McCain’s warrant for his claim to be a change agent. She is his lipstick.

Of course, the Democrats ought not make it personal against Sarah Palin. That will fail.

(And no, “lipstick on a pig” is not a personal assault on Palin. In fact, the Republican reaction was so overwrought today that it probably enables the Democrats to use this line however they see fit. More on this in a moment).

The Democrats, however, do have a couple of things working in their favor. Firstly, voters do not know very much about Sarah Palin apart from the personal stuff. In a Pew survey released today, 69 percent of voters said they’d heard a lot about Sarah Palin’s pregnant daughter. By comparison, just 35 percent said they’d heard a lot about her record as a reformer, and just 30 percent said they’d heard a lot about troopergate (fully 28 percent said they’d heard nothing about troopergate at all). So there is ground to be made up here.

And fortunately for Democrats, the ground is fertile. It is fertile because the Republicans significantly overplayed their hand on earmarks. Palin was before the bridge to nowhere before she was against it. John McCain was against $3 million to study bear DNA in Montana — but how does he feel about $3.2 million to study the DNA of harbor seals in Alaska? It was in Alaska’s earmark request (last row of the second page). Or the mere fact that Alaska is the nation’s runaway leader in earmark requests, as Josh Marshall so aptly caricatures:


Earmark reform is Palin’s warrant for being a change agent. Palin is McCain’s warrant for being a change agent. “Right change” is the argument that McCain has staked his election upon. You win this argument, you probably win the election. It’s not that complicated.

Of course, there is the argument from conventional wisdom that a presidential candidate should not be attacking a vice presidential candidate, as Karl Rove espouses today:

Of all the advantages Gov. Sarah Palin has brought to the GOP ticket, the most important may be that she has gotten into Barack Obama’s head. How else to explain Sen. Obama’s decision to go one-on-one against “Sarah Barracuda,” captain of the Wasilla High state basketball champs?

It’s a matchup he’ll lose. If Mr. Obama wants to win, he needs to remember he’s running against John McCain for president, not Mrs. Palin for vice president.

Michael Dukakis spent the last months of the 1988 campaign calling his opponent’s running mate, Dan Quayle, a risky choice and even ran a TV ad blasting Mr. Quayle. The Bush/Quayle ticket carried 40 states.

Adlai Stevenson spent the fall of 1952 bashing Dwight Eisenhower’s running mate, Richard Nixon, calling him “the kind of politician who would cut down a redwood tree, and then mount the stump and make a speech for conservation.” The Republican ticket carried 39 of 48 states.

If Mr. Obama keeps attacking Mrs. Palin, he could suffer the fate of his Democratic predecessors. These assaults highlight his own tissue-thin résumé, waste precious time better spent reassuring voters he is up for the job, and diminish him — not her.

Rove draws an analogy to Michael Dukakis attacking Dan Quayle. But Dan Quayle, from the moment he was selected as George H.W. Bush’s running mate, was a liability for Bush. Dukakis was wasting his time attacking Quayle because he had already won the argument — but it wasn’t a winning argument.

On the other hand, Palin may be a winning argument for McCain. Rove ought to know this, because he knows all about attacking an opponent’s strength. But as the Pew numbers reveal, the argument is very much unsettled. It should not even be a particularly difficult argument for the Democrats to win, but they need to make sure that 90 percent of the voters know about harbor seal DNA by the time that Election Day hits.


Indeed, not only was Barack Obama’s “lipstick” comment today not something he should need to apologize for — it is precisely the right metaphor for the campaign. If the Republicans get their way, and “right change” versus “wrong change” becomes the prevailing narrative of the campaign, it will be Obama’s best argument, and maybe his only one. I had a friend who suggested to me today that rather than cut and run from the metaphor (which Obama, wisely, has not done), Obama go full boar — er, full bore — and build an advertising campaign around it:

Just thought I’d share an idea circulating among my circle of friends. The Obama campaign should cut an ad featuring a real pig wearing real lipstick. A funny ad —- when I was a kid liberals actually had senses of humor and weren’t afraid to provoke; it’d be nice to see that back in the playbook.

In this hypothetical ad, the pig roots around in its sty, wearing lipstick and a pink bow. The soundtrack just consists of pig sounds —- grunts, hooves in slop, &c. After a few seconds, the words “John McCain’s agenda — more of the same.” Those words fade out, followed by (one at a time, in sequence): “Unfair tax policy.” “Foreign policy failures.” “War on the middle class.” “Irresponsible energy policy.” “Corporate welfare.” etc etc etc.

Two-thousand and seven was the year of the pig in the Chinese calendar; maybe it can be 2008 here in the States.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.